Keeping the blues in the family

Louisiana guitarist Kenny Neal brings his licks to the Israeli stage.

KENNY NEAL: I’m telling a story about where I come from (photo credit: MARILYN STRINGER/DEB LUBIN)
KENNY NEAL: I’m telling a story about where I come from
The blues is the most engaging of musical forms. It is a discipline which – in the best sense – simply reeks of roots, especially if you hail from the Deep South.
Kenny Neal comes from that part of the world, and will be bringing his artistry and rich DNA with him when he flies over here from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to hook up with some our own finest bluesmen for two shows in Israel on October 31 and November 2.
Neal’s career path has been glaringly clear from the word go. “My dad, Raful Neal, he started playing the blues in the early ‘50s,” says Neal. Neal Sr. proffered a helping hand to a youngster, who went on to become one of the mega-stars of the global blues scene. “He started a band in 1956 and he had a guitar player in his band by the name of Buddy Guy,” Neal chuckles. The said Mr. Guy is now 83 years old, universally lauded and still strutting his instrumental and vocal stuff across the world.
Having the likes of Guy in the vicinity, coupled with his father’s top-notch work, meant that the youngster imbibed a heady diet of the blues before he was even knee-high to a grasshopper. Listening to and, quite soon, playing the blues was as natural for Neal as mother’s milk. “When I was a kid, I grew up around these guys. My dad played with all the great blues guys. I don’t remember learning to play the blues. I just know I always played it,” says the 62-year-old guitarist, harmonica player and singer. “It was always around my home, and we just took it in as part of life.”
One of the greatest benefits of being surrounded by seasoned performers is the banter and lore you get to hear. Neal got plenty of that in his youth, and that has carried over into his daytime job. “We always have to tell the story,” he remarks.
But you also have to be emotionally invested in your craft if you are going to go over as the real deal. “Some [blues numbers] are happy, some are sad. But blues music is played with feeling. You have to feel what you’re playing. It’s not technical at all. It’s straight from the heart.”
Neal was born and bred in the Deep South, and has fed off the cultural and musical vibes around him all his life. Other than a brief sojourn in California, where his wife worked for a while, Neal has always lived in the vicinity of his birthplace. That offers the inestimable advantage of being fueled by the feel of the local folk, the folklore and accrued small town history, and the tales handed down through the generations. Naturally, the most convincing way to convey all of the above is through the music. “I got all of that from my dad and my grandfather, who was a Baptist preacher in New Orleans. He had a church where he preached the Word.” Music is central to services conducted by the denomination - gospel music. “We had to do that as well,” says Neal, referencing weekly family visits to church.
That may, or may not, have been something of an onerous chore for the youngster but his musical education was all the richer for it. “The blues comes from the Gospel, so the music has been around us forever.”
NEAL HAS been doing his level best to keep the cultural torch burning brightly all his life. “I have very deep roots,” he says. And not only in the physical corporeal sense. “It’s in my heart and in my family. We just carried a tradition on. It’s just like any family that produces products, like wine or any good products you want to pass onto the next generation, and we want to keep our family going with the blues.”
The Neals have certainly been doing that ever since Raful first turned to music, to express some personal and collective baggage which, as it happily turned out, led the way to a better life. “We started [with the blues] back from slavery. That’s from slavery days,” Neal explains. “My dad was able to come out of that through music and blues. That’s important. I didn’t have to grow up on a plantation because my dad was able to provide a home and a place for us where we could have more freedom.”
Fortunately, Neal Sr. did not experience, firsthand, the physical and emotional rigors of forced labor and the almost total lack of rights that were the lot of African Americans back in those bad old days. That, notes his son, was partly due to his gift for musical expression and wanting to forge a sunnier future for himself. Music offered a way out. “My dad was born in 1936. My dad was a foster kid, and the people who raised him came from the plantation. My dad didn’t want to live on a plantation, so he bought a harmonica, put a band together, and he was able to get away from that.”
Neal infers that family history through his lyrics, the notes and the energies that course through his own output. That certainly comes across in Bloodline, his well-received 2016 album that brought him a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. His late brother, bassist Noel Neal, played on the album, and there were a full seven members of the extended family on backing vocals.
“It’s pretty much our roots. I’m telling a story about where I come from. It’s pretty much the same as my family’s story.” He says he was gratified by the attention the release drew and, particularly, by the nod of approval from the music industry’s most glittering annual occasion. “That was great. I was really proud of that record, because I did that record just to preserve history, you know. That’s why I made Bloodline, and that song in particular. I was just capturing my history. It ended up being nominated for a Grammy, and it also won a blues music award in Memphis – Best Album of the Year.”
For Neal, it’s not only about taking care of his own patch. He wants to spread the good healthy word, as far and wide as he can, and feels the acclaim he has achieved can help. “It also opens up eyes for other people to say, ‘Hey, maybe I should think about my family.’ It kind of brings people together. Some of the stories I hear are real sad. When I hear about people who don’t get along, in their own family, it breaks my heart to hear that.”
THE NEALS, it seems, have managed to maintain a robust, creative and loving family life through the years. Mind you, having a shared musical interest can help. Neal was the oldest of 10 siblings, although sadly three are no longer with us, and he often performs with his talented kin. “Everybody plays music. That’s been good in my career, because I never had to go out and hire other musicians. When I tour, I tour with my brothers.” Neal doesn’t play exclusively with his relatives, but they are generally there in the mix. “I have two brothers in the band, and this weekend I’ll have four brothers in the band,” he laughs. “We play different instruments – guitars, harmonica, drums, bass. We’re the band.”
In jazz, people talk about the rarity of having a “working band,” a regular lineup, in a challenging marketplace in which it is tough to hang on to the a fixed roster of sidemen. Neal’s strong family ties obviated that particular minefield. “For my whole career I never had to worry about musicians, because I always had my family. I was so lucky to have that. That’s so precious.” The next lot are also well into it too. “I have six kids altogether, including two who are not my biological kids but they are my heart. They are all musical. My daughter sings. You can see them all on YouTube.”
The bluesman says living in his neck of the woods also offered him a ready source of a broad sweep of idiomatic expression. It also helped to nurture an eclectic all-embracing take. He doesn’t, for instance, go for the strict divide between the traditionally acoustic-based blues on the south and the electric-driven sounds born up north, in Chicago. “I like them all. If it’s good, it’s good. But, here in the south, in Louisiana, especially from my town, Baton Rouge, we have a lot of different input of music. To the north we have Mississippi and we have people come down from there. So we have the Delta blues from the north, and west of me we have a lot of Cajun and Zydeco music. And south of me, I’ve got the city of New Orleans. We were surrounded by different styles of music, and we play our own style out of Baton Rouge and we have different flavors in our music.”
Although Neal says he grew up on a strict blues diet, and paid little attention to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones as a kid, he has a warm spot for rock & roll. “Muddy Waters said that the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock & roll,” he laughs. That was particular true in the emerging British rock scene in the early 1960s, when the likes of Alexis Korner were spreading the blues word, and influencing a whole slew of rockers who went on to become fully fledged pantheon members, such as guitarist Peter Green, members of The Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin, and vocalist-keyboardist-guitarist John Mayall.
“I toured with John Mayall,” Neal says. “I’m just happy see that guys over there in Britain, back in the day, were interested in what my dad and [guitarist, vocalist and harmonica player] Slim Harpo and all the guys were doing here in Louisiana. We were reaching out to people and they were listening.” Neal is still pounding on that well-trodden road.
Neal will perform with local musicians, including Swedish-born guitarist Andy Watts, at Zappa Herzliya on October 31 at 10 p.m., and at the Elma Center at Zichron Ya’acov on November 1 at 10 p.m.